Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Discworld: The Last Hero

I haven't read this one for quite a while and I'd forgotten just how much there is to talk about in it... I'm bound to miss something! The Last Hero was originally released as an illustrated story - the front cover says 'A Discworld Fable' - and that's the version I have. The story is told more briefly and simply than the longer novels (for example, Carrot goes on a life-or-death mission to save the world without, within the narrative at least, saying goodbye to his girlfriend) and illustrated by Paul Kidby.

OK, well, first, the basic set-up - which is based on the myth of Prometheus, here renamed 'Mazda' (I'm not sure if that's significant, it doesn't mean anything to me) (Edit: it would appear that 'Mazda' is a Zoroastrian god associated with fire, which makes sense - see comments below). Prometheus, in Greek mythology, stole the secret of fire from the gods, and was punished by being chained to a rock for all eternity, with an giant eagle eating his liver every day (the liver regrowing overnight). The main source for his myth is Hesiod, who also has Heracles (Hercules) rescue Prometheus after a (fairly long) period of time. The Discworld version is very similar, though simplified (in Hesiod, Zeus has deprived men of fire in punishment for another trick of Prometheus', which is why it must be stolen back again) and the story of Mazda is accompanied by an illustration based very closely on this sixth century black figure vase, but incorporating the Discworld chief god Blind Io.

Ironically for one of the shortest Discworld novels, the themes of The Last Hero are those of epic poetry - mortality and the immortality that may be gained if a hero is remembered in song. Although the unnamed singer and some of the aesthetics - the heroes' fur costumes and Viking conceptions of both funerals and the afterlife - owe more to Beowulf (which is Anglo-Saxon) and probably Wagner, the problem of mortality is central to a lot of epic poetry. Perhaps it's not such a strong theme in the Odyssey, though it is there, especially in Odysseus' journey to the underworld, and the Song of Roland is quite keen on the idea of the glorious death in battle, but the Epic of Gilgamesh is about the search for immortality, the Iliad is all about problematizing the values of long life and peaceful death against a short life with poetic immortality and Beowulf itself sees its hero grow old and die.

Death is not something that is often embraced by Discworld characters, the series being built on Rincewind, a hero who is pretty determined not to die any time soon. However, it is occasionally embraced by elderly characters, like the witch in Mort or, to some extent, Miss Flitworth in Reaper Man, so it would not be entirely surprising to see the elderly Silver Horde of heroes of the barabarian variety die willingly. However, this is not what they have in mind. The Silver Horde are determined to rage against the dying of the light and are extremely angry at the gods for allowing old age and quiet, non-heroic death to overtake them, so they plan to return fire to the gods, with interest - interest in the form of a very large explosion.

Unfortunately, this explosion will destroy the world, so a different sort of hero has to be sent to stop them. Although they call themselves barbarians, the Silver Horde are pretty similar to Greek heroes - the job of a hero consists of murder, theft and pillage. The difference between them and Greek heroes is that they don't include rape, and don't have to, since the women they 'ravish' are apparently quite willing. (This is, of course, because modern readers tend not to sympathise with rapists). The hero who must stop them is Carrot, a more modern hero - a man with a steady job protecting the public whose idea of heroism is to save lives whenever possible, not take them. (The Dark Lord Evil Harry is also a more modern phenomenon - he belongs in 20th/21st century fantasy fiction, thanks to Tolkien).

The gods of the Discworld, as I noted in the last post, also have a distinctly Classical bent.

This is Paul Kidby's illustration of some of the Discworld gods - (l-r) Offler the Crocodile God, not actually an Egyptian deity (as far as I remember) but clearly inspired by Egyptian deities which included jackal-headed, dog-headed and eagle-headed gods, Flatulus God of the winds (ha ha ha, but note the Romanised name), Fate, Urika (no obvious Classical origin, but the name sounds like the Greek 'eureka!', I have it, shouted by Archimedes in the bath and possibly explaining why she's goddess of saunas), Blind Io (basically Zeus/Jupiter, but with the extra element of the floating eyes), Libertina (Goddess of apple pie among other things, which is best not to think about), The Lady (Luck/Fortuna), Bibulous, Patina, Goddess of Wisdom (Athena/Minerva, she's wearing Athena's helmet), Topaxi (little red one down at the front, no idea what he's about), Bast (cat goddess at the back, actually an Egyptian goddess though not originally associated with things left on the doorstep or half-digested under the bed, that's just modern domestic cats) and Nuggan (who comes up later in the story). Later, we see the blacksmith god, who is unnamed, but Hephaestion, Vulcan and Wayland (Celtic) are actually name-checked here (along with Dennis who I think is... less genuine).

As you can see, their home, Dunmanifestin (Dun manifestin', like dun roamin') also looks very Greek. Kidby's illustration of the outside of Dunmanifestin includes architectural elements from various religions - Egyptian, medieval Christian, Aztec, even the Easter Island faces - but the majority is vaguely Greco-Roman and the top area, where we see the gods play their games, looks definitely Greek. In the western imagination, polytheistic religion is Greco-Roman, with just a hint of Egyptian. (Edited to add: Their home, and the size and placement of the board game, is also clearly inspired by Jason and the Argonauts, which I recently re-watched!).

A lot of the story is about the fact that the world the barbarians lived in is slipping away, and in many ways the minstrel they bring along to witness and tell of their great deeds epitomises that. (The Horde have heard of the Muses, but they've either misunderstood their purpose - ancient poets don't claim to be witnesses of mythology, they are inspired by the Muses - or simply don't trust them to tell it right). The Horde need Homer or the author of Beowulf, but they've got Shakespeare - great with sonnets, not so good at epic. (They have been ruling the Agatean Empire, but rule out poets there for not writing more than 17 syllables - to the western imagination, all Asian poetry is haiku. This is entirely inaccurate, but there we have it). Over the course of the story, however, the minstrel becomes somewhat converted, though the emphasis on the music he plays at the end may imply he is going the route of Wagner rather than Homer.

As the minstrel tries to understand why the barabrians are doing what they're doing, he quotes the great conqueror Carelinus, who conquered all the known world except Fourecks and the Counterweight Continent (Australia and Asia - the Discworld does not appear to contain America, of which make what you will) and wept when he saw there were no more worlds to conquer - i.e., Romanised name notwithstanding, Alexander the Great. The line about Alexander weeping is of uncertain but not ancient origin, though it may stem from Plutarch's suggestion that, when he heard there were infinite worlds, Alexander wept because he had not yet conquered one. Cohen, though he thinks weeping is sissy (proving himself not to be a Greek hero, as Achilles and Odyseeus regularly burst into tears) thoroughly agrees with this sentiment.

There are some nicely satisfying moments for Classicists in this book. There's the obligatory rescue of Mazda of course (the eagle won't know what stabbed it with a big sword). Even better, while Ponder Stibbons struggles to come up with a way to stop the spaceship crashing when the designer (Leonard da Quirm, the Disc's greatest genius), the Patrician realises they should pull 'Prince Haran's Tiller' because Prince Haran was a legendary Klatchian hero whose ship had a magical tiller (I can't remember the real-world origin of this story at the moment, though 'Kltachian' suggests Arabian Nights).

Leonard da Quirm ws a genius, but hadn't quite got the hang of smiles. Illustration by Paul Kidby.

The last page of the book says 'No one remembers the singer. The song remains'. Homer, if he was a real person, might not approve entirely, but the story certainly comes to the same basic conclusion as the Iliad - that there is something to be said for a glorious death if it is remembered in song. The Horde, however, are considerably older than Achilles and although 'second star to the right and striaght on till morning' is pooh-poohed as a ridiculous method of astronavigation, the Horde do ride off on the horses of the Valkyries into the stars, with Death refusing to confirm whether they are alive or dead. It's a beautiful story, beautifully illustrated, and provides a suitable send-off for the now out-dated Silver Horde - for just as they have no place on the Discworld any more, modern tastes tend away from the barbarian hero, and thoughts turn more towards the philanthropic, self-sacrificing hero of Carrot's mould.

Edited to add: it's been pointed out to me below that I missed out the heroic trio's motto - Morituri Nolumus Mori, which roughly translates as 'we who are about to die don't want to die'. Rincewind suggests this, of course, demonstrating his well-known ability with languages as well as his fervant desire not to die yet. No one else seems to object to it though, and it's a rather good motto, though not as good as the dwarf battle cry which reworks the Klingon 'Today is a good day to die' into 'Today is a good day for someone else to die'...

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Discworld: Bilious, the Oh God of Hangovers

OK, here's what happened. I wanted to do a Christmas-themed post, but I'd already done The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina and I haven't read Lindsey Davies' Saturnalia yet, so I thought I'd do something on the Discworld gods, relating it to Bilious and Hogfather. And I was going to do it last week. But then Life and Christmas intervened and this morning I picked up The Last Hero and realised that there was loads more to say about the Discworld gods and The Last Hero in particular than I had time to look into right now. So that post will follow at a later date and for now, a (sort of) Christmas-themed taster: Bilious, the Oh God of Hangovers.

Bilious appears in the Discworld novel Hogfather, in which assassins are hired to inhume the Hogfather, the Discworld version of Father Christmas. On the Discworld, belief creates gods and other mythical beings (a philosophically fascinating idea that I haven't time to go into right now!) and without the Hogfather, the extra belief sloshing around starts to create several minor deities and folkloric beings, such as the Eater of Socks and the Jinglejingle Fairy. Among the beings created is Bilious.

Bilious is the natural opposite to Bibulous, the God of Wine. Bibulous is, of course, loosely modelled on Dionysus, what with his crown of vine leaves and constant partying, though he is also fat, which isn't especially Dionysian, and has its roots in modern imagery of excess. Bilious explains that the reason that Bibulous is so happy is that he never gets a hangover - they all come to Bilious, who is the Oh God of Hangovers - because when people witness him they clutch their head and say 'oh God...'

Bilious also wears a long white robe and crown of vine leaves - ensuring that he looks vaguely Greco-Roman, though the idea that Classical gods should wear long white robes probably has more to do with modern perceptions and children using sheets as togas than any actual knowledge of ancient costume. However, since I don't actually know much about ancient clothing either, I shouldn't pass judgement.

Bilious, as played by Rhodri Meilir in the Sky One adaptation of 'Hogfather'

Poor Bilious gets his revenge eventually - he takes a hangover cure put together by the wizards of Unseen University, and while it works to cure his hangover, the less pleasant side effects of the cure get transferred to Bibulous, who is interrupted mid-cocktail (he is enjoying some rather more modern luxury at the time, involving a cocktail with a slice of lemon in it and a rumba, and the timeless luxury of two gorgeous girls snuggling up to him). Bilious watches in fascination as all his misery is finally visited on the cause of it. It's very satisfying!

That's all I've really got time for now, but more thoughts on Discworld gods to follow at a later date. Also, I got the complete box-set of the BBC/HBO series Rome for Christmas, so once I've finished going through I, Claudius, I'll go backwards in time and start on Rome. Happy Christmas everyone!

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Chelmsford 123: Arriverderci Roma!

Chelmsford 123 was a sitcom that ran for two series in the 1980s, currently available to view on 4oD in the UK. It was good fun - some episodes were better than others, obviously - but my two favourite episodes were the first one and the last one, because those two included some Latin.

The first episode opens, in an obvious homage to I, Claudius, at the Emperor's dining room in the middle of a feast. This Rome is the bog-standard city of vice and immoral behaviour so often shown in popular culture - the dinner has a 'prostitute course', for example. Technically, since the show is set in AD 123, this is the Emperor Hadrian, but he bears almost no resemblence to anything we know about Hadrian, except that they both have beards. This emperor is a combination of all the traits associated, in the popular imagination, with Roman emperors - so he's completely mad, he's married to a horse ('Portia'), divorced from a goat ('there were kids involved') and having an affair with a sheep.

While the characters are in Rome, they speak in Latin, with subtitles. Although the Latin is accurate (and pronounced in the correct Classical style), the jokes are all based on the English translation, as in the 'kids' example, though several jokes are also based around the fact that it's just funny to hear a rude word in a dead language - 'testiculos' for 'bollocks', for example (though I'm not 100% sure this is right...). It's a rather more fun way to practise Latin than grammar exercises though - I wish more sitcoms would film sequences in Latin.

The British characters, of course, speak English, as do the Roman characters when they arrive in Briton (supposedly they've learned the local language to try to blend in - highly unlikely, but unlike me, most of the country doesn't want to watch a sitcom filmed entirely in Latin). There are some more linguistic jokes in this episode, as the Romans struggle to get the hang of the language and mistake 'piss off' for a greeting.

Then there's this - one of the funniest things I've seen on a sitcom. But then, I have a very bad sense of humour. (The Doctor here is Tom Baker's Doctor - demonstrating that for many, many people, pre-David Tennant, Tom Baker really was THE Doctor, the best known and best loved of the lot).

I tend to find the Roman sequences funnier than the British ones in Chelmsford 123. Perhaps it's because the Roman sequences mock the popular perception of ancient Rome and previous Roman epics (chiefly I, Claudius of course) while the British sequences rely more on fairly generic pub humour involving blind men being cheated at cards and one very stupid character who doesn't understand anything (though his observation that all Romans are called Marcus did amuse me). Chief Badvok's 'girlfriend' is also an intensely irritating character (dropped for the second series), made more so by the inappropriateness of an historical character having a 'girlfriend' rather than a wife or mistress/concubine. ('Boy/girlfriends' in the modern sense don't exist in many historical societies).

By the end of the first episode, our Roman characters, Aulus and Grasientus, have started to settle in (despite the unfortunate 'piss off' misunderstanding) and the relationship between Badvok and Aulus - official emnity with an underlying sense of friendship only occasionally disturbed by attempts on each other's lives - has been firmly established. The rest of the series continues in a fun, silly vein, though sadly without the Latin, which doesn't reappear until the very last episode...

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

I, Claudius: Hail Who?

Apologies if posts are a bit few and far between this month. I've moved, but still not finished unpacking, and it seems that a clothes clear-out is in order, and I'm still trying to get two papers finished by January...

This episode of I, Claudius (which is not suitable for children, by the way) opens by introducing us to Claudius favourite slave/mistress/prostitute, and showing us a Claudius who barely seems to be part of the imperial family any more, but who is living - happily it seems - as an aristocrat in Rome. Herod has written to him and the two seem fairly close, probably because they're the last two standing. Caligula has opened a brothel at the palace, where he is forcing noble women to protitute themselves, and is employing Claudius as a doorman.

Which leads us to... a proper Roman orgy! After weeks of waiting, we are treated to a full on orgy - well, as full on as the BBC will allow, we're not talking Caligula here. But for it's time, it was pretty shocking,with bare breasts everywhere, cavorting, messed up togas, grapes and two men kissing practically on top of the camera, which was pretty far out for the BBC in the 70s. Caligula's pregnant wife, who is older, not especially pretty and seems bizarrely sane, thanks Claudius for rescuing a new mother from the orgy, and Caligula himslef enters, in all his barely dressed glory, to discover Claudius in the act of beating up another over-enthusiastic customer. Caligula has decided to go to war in Germania. To escape the degradation of Rome.

We jump forward in time a bit - the baby is now born - and Caligula thinks there is a conspiracy against him so has been killing off more senators and generals. Claudius is going to see him and to bring him Livia's belongings to auction off.

In Germania - you can tell we've moved north as it's pouring with rain - Claudius arrives with two others and is thrown in the river for coming by boat, when Caligula is at war with Neptune. Caligula rants and raves at the other two and is about to have them killed for plotting against him with Neptune when Claudius reappears, having climbed out of the river, soaking wet and covered in mud and a few raggedy bits of green stuff, and engages Caligula in his favourite non-sexual game, quoting bits of Homer at random. Caligula enjoys this so much he promises to save the other two if Claudius' next quote is appropriate, which luckily it is, being something about the greatness of Jove, i.e. Caligula himself.

The other two make a bid for freedom and Caligula gives his new chief soldier (having got rid of Gimli some time ago) the watchword - 'give us a kiss'. This is a very, very bad move on Caligula's part. He takes Claudius in for a drink and talks about his nightmares and how he hardly sleeps and the thumping in his head, and how he is punishing Cassius Chaerea, the guard, for weeping while torturing someone to death. John Hurt is brilliant as ever, totally unhinged and yet bizarrely sympathetic, so that you can see why his poor wife loves him (which Claudius believes is the reason he wants her) and the standout moment is when he asks Claudius, in all sincerity, 'Do you think I'm mad?' Since Claudius isn't mad, he assures Caligula of his absolute sanity. Caligula also think he's the Messiah - as we will see, there's a lot of that about. The only thing that worries him is a prophecy that he (the Messiah that is) will die young, and hated by his own people. I have no idea whether there was a prophecy like that - I don't know much about Jewish prophecy, except for Josephus' claims. It might be an invention of Graves'.

Caligula comes home and yells at everyone for not giving him a triumph, when he had ordered them not to. He then displays his booty from his war with Neptune - seashells. Once more, Claudius and Caesonia (the wife) have to physically restrain him, then beg him not to murder everyone in front of him on sight. Marcus Vinicius gets in trouble though, for mentioning that Agrippa was Caligula's grandfather, so Cassius takes the opportunity to suggest once again that it might be time to get rid of Caligula.

Caligula has one last, mad scene before we get into his demise and fall though. He calls for Claudius, Vinicius and another in the middle of the night and demands that they come to the palace. The three of them sit for hours, terrified, Claudius hoping whatever happens is 'quick', and Vinicius apologises for making fun of him and they all hold hands.

Just at this moment, Caligula jumps in to the room to the clash of a tamborine. He is wearing a gold bikini, big gold earrings, a wig that looks like his late, lamented sister Drusilla's hair, a LOT of make-up and some yellow-gold bits of net. It is strangely glorious. He has summoned them to see him perform a dance to a song about the goddess Dawn, at dawn. When it is finished, Claudius sucks up as only he knows how, and Caligula tells him that he is to move back to the palace and be married to a young girl who was in the dance - Messalina. Caligula thinks this will be very funny, as she is so young and beautiful. Claudius apologises, but Messalina tells him she would like to be married to him, and he instantly falls head over heels in love with her. Derek Jacobi plays Claudius' complete, irrational, consuming love for this first of his wives who has actually expressed some 'genuine' desire to be married to him perfectly.

Claudius may have done well out of the whole thing, but Vinicius is not impressed. When Caligula gives Cassius the watchword - 'bottoms up' - Vinicius gives him anther - 'liberty'.

We get to see Claudius and Messalina's wedding, to which 'the noble senator Incitatus' has been invited - a rather fine white horse wearing purple and with purple flowers round its ears. I discussed this the other week - this confirms that I, Claudius does indeed call him a 'senator', which is incorrect, it should be 'consul'. And actually, he shouldn't be there at all - as I said the other week, Suetonius and Dio Cassius only say that Caligula thought about making Incitatus a consul, not that he actually did so.

It's pretty funny though.

Cassius and Vinicius discuss their plans for killing Caligula, along with Caesonia, Claudius and the baby - they want to to elimnate the entire Imperial family in the hope of restoring the Republic. They discuss the problem of the German guards, who are loyal to the emperor (who pays their wages). They want to kill Caligula's two sisters too, which they'll have trouble doing 'tomorrow', as both sisters are currently living in that favourite state for female descendants of Augustus, in exile on tiny islands. Cassius tells Vinicius he'll only Caligula when Vinicius objects, but he's lying.

The conspirators trap Caligula in a corridor in the amphitheatre, though not before he's had a chance to declare everyone's favourite Caligula line - talking to the crowd as they boo him at the amphitheatre, he says 'if you only had one neck I'd chop it through'. His death is really rather tragic - as bloody as the BBC can make it (which isn't very) and I challenge anyone not to feel a little sorry for him as he goes from screaming 'You can't kill me, I'm a god!' to crying out for his dead sister 'Drusilla! Drusilla I'm dying!'. Although since he killed Drusilla, sympathy is limited.

The conspirators murder Caesonia and the baby, but before they can get to Claudius, the Praetorian guard, worried for their jobs, find him hiding behind a curtain and immediately declare him emperor. As the episode ends, Claudius is carried out on the soldiers of the Praetorian and German guards, wearing a wonky laurel wreath and protesting that he doesn't want to be emperor, to no avail.

Caligula has some really mad stuff to do in this episode, but somehow Hurt manages to keep him just grounded enough to hold on to some sympathy and stop him from becoming completely unbelieveable. At the same time, we get to enjoy all those aspects of Roman history that have the widest popular appeal - a mad emperor, an orgy, crazy stuff with animals, assassination and some very silly costumes. Whether Caligula was really that mad is hard to say and there's certainly been some exaggeration going on, even taking Suetonius and Cassius Dio as sources (Incitatus for example). It does, however, make great entertainment. The only problem is where to go from here - the real life emperor Claudius presents as much opportunity for craziness as the rest of his family, but since here he's our hero, he can't be portrayed in the same way as the others, or he'll lose our sympathy. The solution is to look to the wife...

Thursday, 10 December 2009

2012 (dir. Roland Emmerich, 2009)

OK, I know this seems like a totally bizarre subject for a Classics/Ancient History blog, but I do have a point, I promise. Bear with me. Minor spoilers follow.

I went to see this the other day and I have to admit, I actually really enjoyed it. I'm not suggesting it's a particularly good film necessarily, but I though it was genuinely fun and, unlike most viewers it seems, I wasn't bored by the 50-minute prelude before anything blows up. I actually liked the slow build-up of tension before the major stuff started happening, though I did think it was clear that John Cusack's character had never seen Dante's Peak during the Yellowstone section... Also, I learned from this film that it is possible to drive a limo through a building - glass, walls and all - and out the other side without damage to the limo or the people in it, even if one of the doors has already come off. Who knew?!

I did think the end was a bit too much - the movie seemed to be reaching a natural conclusion, then suddenly there was another 20 minutes of action and two more main character deaths, one a horribly contrived narrative convenience and the other - and I know this may sound crazy - I thought was a death too far. Yes, this is a movie that kills off half the human race. But that last death was narratively redundant, irritating and barely even noticed by the other characters (not to mention the physics of it were completely illogical).

There was one part that really irritated me though. The USian president and Italian prime minister nobly stay in their countries to 'go down with the ship' while other world leaders save themselves - fair enough, you might say. But one of the characters seen scuttling onto the ships to save themselves, as Mark Kermode put it, is the Queen (ours, that is. The Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). During World War Two, our present Queen and her sister were sent to Windsor Castle for safety, but her parents stayed in Buckingham Palace throughout the Blitz, despite receiving several hits (OK, it's a big building, but still). Of all the people to depict as rushing to save themselves, to choose the Queen seems in poor taste. (They also killed off a character in the same Paris tunnel where Princess Diana died, which I actually recognised, and which was thoroughly creepy. This was in even worse taste).

Anyway, the reason I'm covering it on the blog is a brief conversation between Chiwetal Ejiofor and Thandie Newton while on Air Force One. Thandie Newton's character, in addition to being the USian First Daughter, is a doctor of art history and has been working to save various masterpieces from destruction - Van Gogh, Da Vinci etc. Chiwetal Ejiofor's charater is a geologist who has brought his favourite, very unsuccessful, only-sold-400-copies science fiction novel with him. Thandie Newton muses on the process of deciding what to save - acknowledged 'masterpieces' which will now be the legacy of the human race - and Chiwetal Ejiofor points out that, along with all those, his personal favourite novel which no one else has read will also become part of their legacy, because he brought it and he is reading it.

My point (and I do have one) is that something similar happens with Classical texts. Many of them have been deliberately preserved because they are acknowledged masterpieces - Cicero, Virgil, Homer and so on. But some texts have been preserved, not because they were considered to be important works, but simply because people enjoyed reading them - the Greek novels spring to mind. Some texts are known only from fragments discovered in ancient Egyptian rubbish dumps. These can be just as revealing, if not more so, about the people who wrote and read them, but their survival is a matter of pure chance, like the barely-known novel saved in 2012 while millions of other, much more successful novels are lost. What they tell us about the ancient world is different from what we learn from the 'masterpieces' - acknowledged masterpieces show how people want to see themselves, but popular works show how they actually see themselves.

So there we go. Wisdom flowers in unexpected places. I'm moving house this weekend so forgive me if there's a bit of a break, and I promise I will at some point do another post on something more closely related to the Classical world!

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Angel: The Oracles

The Oracles' tenure on Angel was pretty short-lived. They were introduced as a handy plot device in 'I Will Remember You', a first season episode that's a fan favourite and that I'm very fond of, but I have to confess the description I read of it once (I can't remember where I'm afraid, but it might have been Keith Toppings' Unoffical Guide) that it's basically fan fiction made canon is rather accurate. First, someone needs to explain the plot to Angel, then later and more importantly, someone or something has to turn back time for him.

Enter the Oracles, who fulfil this function in a nicely detached manner. There's nothing specifically Classical about oracles - various cultures have them, though the English word is from Latin. The term 'oracle' refers to a shrine where it is believed that the gods, or a god, answer questions. Sometimes they do so through a human being who speaks, often saying unintelligible things which are 'interpreted' by the priests, or the god might speak through wind or water, or through dreams. The human variety is probably the best known.

These are certainly not Classical in that sense, as these two are not humans, but higher beings of some kind. They exist in some parallel dimension and say things like 'I like time' when given a watch. They also require gift-offerings - that's more common, as a visit to an oracle would usually require a sacrifice and possibly a financial donation as well.

What makes Angel's Oracles Classical is their aesthetic. I'm not sure what's with the weird face paint, but the loose tunics are definitely meant to look vaguely Greco-Roman, as is the marble building they're in (though the arches are all wrong - they're pointed, which looks more like medieval gothic).

The motto over the gateway is also written in Greek. It's supposed to say 'Gateway of Lost Souls' apparently, but as far as I can tell it actually says 'Gate through/because of (dependant on case, which is impossible to tell here) [word that I can't track down without spending a few hours with a big dictionary] [word that sounds like psuche, soul, but doesn't match any of the case endings for psuche].

The Oracles are bit wasted in this show. They're a fun concept (though Angel does tend to chat to the Powers That Be a bit too often) and the actors are good, nice and quirky, with some fun dialogue. But they only appear twice more; in 'Parting Gifts', to explain why they won't turn back time every time something bad happens, and then they get murdered in 'To Shanshu in LA'. I'm not sure what kind of higher being can be killed with a scythe, but there we go. It's a shame - with some better Greek classes and a bit more to do beyone plot exposition/device, they could have been fun.

Hmm, two Joss Whedon posts in a row. I must branch out next time.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog Musical Commentary

I don’t usually post two days in a row, but it’s my viva tomorrow and then things get pretty hectic, so just in case it’s a few days before I get another chance, I’ll post now. Also, I really love this!

OK, we’re descending deep into geekery with this one, so all you “normal” people, you may need to look away. This was passed on to me yesterday (thanks Gideon!) and it’s totally awesome but also so embroiled in levels of post-modernist… something… that the geek universe might just implode.

Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, for those who haven’t heard of it, was an internet production put together by Joss Whedon during the writer’s strike the year before last. I saw it at the time and it’s fab, with almost annoyingly catchy tunes, but I found the ending a bit too… Whedon. I won’t say more in case you haven’t seen it – watch it, it’s great. Also, I love the horse.

I hadn’t heard this before, but it appears to be a musical commentary on the blog. So this is a fictional musical commentary on a fictional musical blog of a fictional character. Whew.

The link is above, but these are the relevant lyrics:

Homer's Odyssey was swell,
A bunch of guys that went through hell,
He told the tale but didn't tell,
the audience why.
He didn't say, "Here's what it means"
And "Here's a few deleted scenes"
"Charybdis tested well with teens"
He's not the story,
He's just a door we open if,
our lives need liftin'...

But now we pick - pick - pick - pick - pick it apart,
Open it up to find the tick - tick - tick - of a heart,
A heart...

The point Joss is making here, obviously (and I suspect only half-ironically) is that, in this age of DVD commentary and wall-to-wall media coverage and internet crazyness, we’ve lost something – the true appreciation of narrative, pure and simple. (Of course, some people don’t get into all that and do just enjoy the simple narrative, but I suspect the people listening to the fictional musical commentary on the fictional blog of the fictional character are not those people). JRR Tolkien would have thoroughly agreed (I told you we were deep into geekland). In his paper ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ Tolkien told a little story about how someone took apart a tower to see how it was made and, in doing so, destroyed the original tower, from which it was possible to see the sea. Tolkien meant to criticize people like me, who analyse literary works to try to discover something about their history, but it could equally apply to the modern obsession with knowing as much as humanly possible about the process behind the stories we tell.

In a way, Whedon has a point. There is something wonderful about how little we know about Homer. He is a complete mystery – perhaps not even one person, perhaps not even two people, with dozens if not hundreds of anonymous oral poets behind him, we don’t know where he was from, we don’t know where he went, we don’t know when he lived. (Yes, I realise I will get a bunch of comments about how he was a blind poet from Ionia and probably ten different opinions on exactly how many poets worked on the Iliad and the Odyssey. The point is, it’s all guesses and theory – we don’t know anything). All we have are two poems which tell wonderful stories (with the occasional really dull, if useful, digression about ships).

On the other hand, we should be wary of over-romanticising. Homer may not have explained what he meant (more’s the pity) or included deleted scenes (though, given the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey, there might be a few in there) but you can be sure he wouldn’t have included Charybdis if it didn’t go down well with audiences, teen or otherwise. Homer may not have had access to the internet, or Sky+, or polled his listeners every week, but he still had to deal with people, and he still had an audience to please.

Homer is also one of the most (over-)analysed writers in history. The lack of deleted scenes and commentary doesn’t stop people from analyzing every word of every sentence of those two poems, it just means there’s a greater chance of them being wrong. Homer isn’t here to tell us that actually, Dumbledore is gay, Spike was originally supposed to die in season 2 and the Ring was written long before the emergence of nuclear weapons. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if he was?!

Information from the author isn’t, as is widely believed, infallible. Firstly, they sometimes lie – apparently, Animal Farm is about animals. Even more importantly, there may be things that influence an author – world events, personal circumstances, things they’ve read or seen but forgotten – that do so subconsciously, so they can’t tell you where something came from or what it means because they’re not sure themselves. But they can put their readers, or viewers, right on the really big mistakes. They can answer the big questions, like why on earth does Aeneas leave the underworld via the gate of false dreams? Just what on earth was Virgil getting at – or is it the world’s most irritating manuscript error?!

So overall, I think the commentaries and dissections and interviews are a good thing, and if anything we do survives us, it may be better understood by the historians and literary analysts of the future. On the other hand, the point still stands. I imagine Whedon picked Homer – along with the caveman’s bison – because he stands at the very edge of history, where it borders on myth. It is possible, if you let yourself, to be swept away by Homer and to let yourself get completely swept up in the grandeur of something we don’t fully understand, which is wonderful for precisely that reason. As Tolkien said, from the top of the tower, we can see the sea.

Although it would be nice if he’d explained the point of the catalogue of ships…

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Yes, Prime Minister: The National Education Service

Another bit of dialogue from Yes, Prime Minister (basically, the last two series of Yes, Minister, in which Jim has been promoted!) which I talked about briefly during my paper the other week:

Hacker: That's not the point. Look at Latin. Hardly anybody knows that now.
Humphrey: Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.
Hacker: What?
Humphrey: Times change and we change with the times.
Hacker: Precisely.
Humphrey: Si tacuisses, philosophus manisses.
Hacker: What does that mean?
Humphrey: If you'd kept your mouth shut, we might have thought you were clever.
Hacker: I beg your pardon?
Humphrey: Not you, Prime Minister. That's the translation.
Bernard: No one would have thought Sir Humphrey was saying that about you.
Humphrey: Go away, Bernard, please.
Hacker: I can't believe it. You had a strict academic upbringing. Are you denying the value of it?
Humphrey: What's the use of it? I can't even call upon it in conversation with the Prime Minister of Great Britain!

Hacker has been arguing that the edcuation system needs reform, but Humphrey disagrees, so ends up slighting his own classical education while at the same time reinforcing his conviction that he much cleverer (and much better educated) than Hacker. He does it agian a little later, when Hacker says 'QED' and he can't resist adding 'quod erat demonstrandum'. I've talked about classics and the British education system before: like Jim Hacker, I would love to see more Latin taught in schools and prevent it from being something valued only by the rich and privileged.

The brilliance, and at the same time, the most depressing thing about Yes, (Prime) Minister is that you can choose any epsiode at random and the chances are, it will be discussing something that is still an issue today. We have moved on very little from the early 1980s (except in certian areas - it's actually quite encouraging to remember that apartheid has ended and Northern Ireland is in a much better state than it was when I was a child). For the most part, though, we are still having exactly the same arguments as we were back then, and this is one of them. I think we've made some progress though, and hopefully the best is yet to come!

As a random aside, while looking for this quote, I also found this on Wikipedia:

Quidquid Latine dictum sit altum videtur - "whatever has been said in Latin seems deep". Or "anything said in Latin sounds profound". A recent ironic Latin phrase to poke fun at people who seem to use Latin phrases and quotations only to make themselves sound more important or "educated". Similar to the less common omnia dicta fortiora si dicta Latina.

This made me laugh. Very true, and something I'm looking into at the moment - the bizarre notion that things sound more important in Latin. Part of the subject of a paper I hope to write soon...
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